Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

24 February 2012

Avengers Academy, v. 1: Permanent Record

Collects: Avengers Academy #1-6, story from Enter the Heroic Age #1 (2010-1)

Released: January 2011 (Marvel)

Format: 168 pages / color / $24.99 (hardcover) / ISBN: 9780785144946

What is this?: Some of the more troubled Avengers try to surreptitiously steer some of Norman Osborn’s more volatile test subjects toward heroism.

The culprits: Writer Christos Gage and penciler Mike McKone (with help from Jorge Molina)

There are a lot of people who complain about the dearth of prominent new characters being created by the Big Two comics companies. For example, look at Marvel: the last important, popular new character to headline a title, Deadpool, first appeared in 1991. That’s more than twenty years ago. This realization leads to two questions: whose fault is this, and what can be done about it?

I don’t know the answer to the second question, but I’m pretty sure the blame for the first lies with comics readers, or at least those who read superhero comics. In the last ten years or so — since the Bill Jemas years — Marvel has not been shy about tossing new, young characters at their audience, both singly and on teams: Spider-Girl. Araña (or Spider-Girl, Part Deux). Gravity. Amadeus Cho. The second New Mutants / second New X-Men. The Hood. X-23. Hope and her mutant team. The Young Avengers. Runaways. Young Allies. Slingers, if you want to go back to the ‘90s. Many characters from Avengers: The Initiative — and I’m sure there are others I’m missing. But none of them survived very long, except Spider-Girl, who limped along for about 130 issues at the bottom of the sales charts. The next most successful is The Initiative, and it lasted about three years.

Avengers Academy, v. 1: Permanent Record coverAll of this is a roundabout way to bring up Avengers Academy, v. 1: Permanent Record. In Academy, some of the Avengers set out to teach young heroes how to use their powers safely, using a school environment —

Yes, I know you’ve heard that setup before. And just like in The Initiative, King Screw-Up himself (Hank Pym) is in charge of molding young minds into please-don’t-be-a-morally-ambiguous-part-time-mentally-ill spouse abuser. But this time, that’s part of the point: All of the students at Avengers Academy have been flagged as possible problems. All were abused by Norman Osborn and his HAMMER goons, and their psychological evaluations raised concerns. So no one is sure what these kids are going to do, left to their own devices. To show the kids they don’t have to give in to destructive impulses and can rebound from wrong decisions, Pym gathered a “bad choices” teaching staff: Quicksilver, a part-time villain who is possibly the only Avenger less stable than Pym; Justice, who killed his father; Speedball, who was crucified by Brian Michael Bendis for the sake of Civil War; and Tigra.

At least it gives writers something more interesting to do with the characters when this book is cancelled. Unlike in one of the X-Men spinoffs, they don’t have to be “random background figure in team crowd scene #2” — they can be a hero or a misguided villain.

Writer Cristos Gage makes each character the focus of one issue in Permanent Record. It’s a good choice, and even though only half of them seem to be the threats the story wants us to believe they are, each is given a chance to be seen as human, with some good and some bad within them. Finesse, who has a natural aptitude for everything but human interactions, is the most intriguing of the group; it’s easy to see her slipping to either side of the hero / villain divide. Her relationship with Quicksilver, the most morally ambiguous of the teachers, is fascinating, especially given her missing moral compass and Quicksilver’s inability to find the ethical North Pole. Finesse seeks knowledge and doesn’t care about moral implications. Implications of any sort elude her, as seen in her relationship with Reptil: she attaches no emotional component to their physical liaisons, and her lack of emotional connection means she doesn’t consider Reptil’s feelings. But she’s surprisingly introspective about her blind spots. Of course, lack of understanding of actions and their consequences is a perfect issue to explore in a comic about teenagers.

The rest of the characters are, if not clichéd, then at least a bit predictable. Striker is the brash glory hog. Veil is the ingénue. Mettle is the good-natured brick who hides his tortured feelings beneath an invulnerable surface. Hazmat is the one with the sour disposition; at least the loss of her formerly perfect life, combined with her now-isolating powers, gives her an excuse for being surly. The issue featuring Reptil, the wannabe leader who has always wanted to be a hero, is the weakest of the book; I didn’t get the character’s disillusionment, but my inability to comprehend may extend from not having read the character’s appearances in The Initiative. It may be part of the “leadership” character trait he’s been given, 63 although given his desire to be a hero, we’re fortunate Gage didn’t make him the stereotypical star-struck rookie.

Of course there’s teenage drama. Of course some of the kids want to go after their tormenter, Osborn, as soon as they can. Some of them want fame, exposure. There’s the usual drama with hormones, both appropriate and inappropriate, with Hazmat — whose touch is poison — having the Rogue drama64 of not being able to touch others. The team seems like an actual group of teenagers, for the most part.

Gage tries to make the teachers relevant as well. He doesn’t have anything for Tigra to do in the book, but the others all get some time. Some of Gage’s decisions, like making Speedball a cutter, is a bit questionable, and Pym is such a screw-up you have to wonder why the Avengers would let him do this again. Justice is the good-hearted guy who attracts inappropriate crushes, just like in The Initiative. Quicksilver, as mentioned above, is always interesting, especially when Finesse makes him confront his time as a villain and his relationship with Magneto. Gage has an uphill battle rehabilitating the character after the heel turn he took between Decimation and Civil War, and he still has work to do. But I’m willing to go along with it for now, which is a credit to Gage’s writing.

The story structure allows for plenty of guest instructors, both heroes and villains. Some of the guest heroes are predictable; Steve Rogers comes by to teach the newbies not to underestimate unpowered opponents, and Iron Fist beats up Finesse to show the difference between mastering technique and knowing when to use it. But Hawkeye’s suggestion of a media day is a good use of the character, and it prompts Pym’s priceless line, “I think I see why Janet left me for you.” Others make the most of brief appearances. Moonstone is hilarious in her cameo, as is the paranoid Ghost. Valkyrie is funny as a militant feminist, but that doesn’t seem in character for her. Even Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur sneak into the background of Reptil’s story. Gage makes some nice choices of creepy villains, such as Mandrill and Crossbones, for background flavor at the Raft.

I’m not sure about McKone’s art. For the most part, I like the style, but occasionally I find something annoying about it. There are times I can’t figure out what exactly is supposed to be going on. Sometimes I don’t know whether it’s the art, writing, or a deliberate mystery that’s confusing me: how did those prisoners get out of their cells in the Raft, for instance? If it was because of the blackout, why didn’t the kids run across any escapees on their way to Osborn’s cell? And did Striker and his mother engineer the supervillain attack on the team to get Striker publicity?

Is it a kiss?Other times, though, I’m sure it’s McKone. He seems to have problems with perspective when two characters are close together, such as Greg and Jenny in #3 and Finesse and Quicksilver at the end of #2 — is Finesse expecting to kiss Quicksilver? Am I supposed to take Veil’s tears in #4 seriously? Why does Powderkeg look so much like a helmetless Juggernaut? His female figures seem to pose too much — even the one wearing a hazmat suit.

More importantly, McKone’s character designs leave something to be desired. Perhaps we’re supposed to see their simplicity as a reflection of our lack of knowledge of the characters or of their lack of experience. Or perhaps it’s just what McKone thinks inexperienced people would design. But Finesse’s costume is horribly boring, a rip-off of the old Mockingbird costume that exchanges the bell sleeves (thankfully) for a pair distracting stripes on her legs. Veil looks like something John Romita, Jr., would have created during his late ‘80s Daredevil run. The rest are unexpired — a superstrong copy of the Red Skull, a guy with a black costume with lightning effects, a very slightly modified hazmat suit, for Kirby’s sake. Ugh.

Getting back to the idea I started this review with: Academy is a good title. Perhaps not great, but there’s still time for that … probably. But how long will it have to get there? And would it matter if they did? All those other titles (except perhaps Araña) were good, and one or two of them reached some pretty impressive heights. But they all were low selling, and quality didn’t keep them from succumbing to superhero fans’ apathy to new ideas.

Rating: Avengers symbol Avengers symbol Avengers symbol (3 of 5, although that’s not giving any credit for potential)

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19 February 2012


Collects: Chase #1-9, 1,000,000, and several Secret Files backups (1998-2002)

Released: December 2011 (DC)

Format: 352 pages / color / $29.99 / ISBN: 9781401232771

What is this?: An agent for the Department of Extranormal Operations deals with the heroes and villains of the DC Universe.

The culprits: Writer Dan Curtis Johnson and artist / co-plotter J.H. Williams III

It’s not often that a penciler gets top billing over a writer on a book. It’s merely a convention that puts the writer first, but it’s a strong one, one that neither publishers nor readers violate without some overriding reason. That being said, there’s a short list of comic book artist who deserves to be listed first, and J.H. Williams III is definitely on that list.

Chase coverSo it’s not entirely surprising that DC chose to put Williams’s name first on the cover of Chase.62 Not on Williams’s later, more acclaimed work such as Batwoman or Promethea, but Chase, a late ‘90s series that followed Cameron Chase, a government agent tasked with keeping tabs on DC’s superhuman community. I have a feeling Williams’s name at the top is more a function of writer Dan Curtis Johnson‘s obscurity compared to Batwoman writer Greg Rucka or Promethea‘s Alan Moore. Yes, Williams is a co-plotter for most of Chase‘s run, but as an artist, he isn’t the J.H. Williams he will become in the 21st century. He even skips most of a couple of flashback issues.

Chase sitting pretty with a pistol in handThat’s not to say that Williams isn’t excellent on Chase His art is strong, well laid out, and clear; he’s already working with non-standard layouts and non-rectangular panels. He manages to draw attractively without making Chase’s world artificially pretty. But that’s it — it’s pretty, not beautiful, and there’s none of the occasionally breathtaking work you find in Batwoman. (Obviously, I’m spoiled by his later work.) He’s working some things out in Chase; you can’t convince me that Williams would draw something like Chase’s clumsy hold on a pistol today. Also, Chase’s sister, Terry, is clearly v. 1.0 of Stacia from Promethea.

It’s not surprising that DC can collect the entire run of Chase in a single paperback volume and still have room left over for tie-in issues. DC’s trades are often excellent values, but Chase lasted only nine issues plus a 1,000,000 issue, which served as the series’s tombstone. That’s an incredibly short run, probably because it featured a new, low-power protagonist — a new female low-power protagonist in the DCU. By some lights, it’s a miracle it got nine issues. That’s not to say Chase deserved only nine issues, though.

In theory — at least for those unversed in comic-book viability — Chase is a good idea for a series. (It actually is a good idea for a TV show, I think.) Chase travels through the DC universe for the Department of Extranormal Operations, giving her the ability interact with almost any hero or villain. Williams and Johnson have her dealing with the Suicide Squad, Rocket Reds, Batman, Teen Titans, Booster Gold, and a couple of Green Lanterns. She has an interesting backstory: a childhood with a father who was a crap superhero, an adulthood career as a private investigator before she joined the DEO. Williams and Johnson delve deep into her past, with two flashback issues featuring her and another PI fighting the Cult of the Broken Circle. Both stories are fun, and I suspect there were a lot more stories of that type that Williams and Johnson could have told, but I’m also sure two flashback issues in the first nine didn’t help sales any. (Nor would the 1,000,000 crossover issue, if it hadn’t been the last issue.) I’m unconvinced that hinting Chase had superhero powers of her own was a good idea, but since the series had no definitive ending, I’ll reserve judgment on that.

I’m also unconvinced that the series had many more interesting stories left. Johnson and Williams told the story of Chase and her sister confronting their father’s secret hero career, and Chase explained what that meant for her own professional career in Chase #8. In one sense, the series could always have become a peripatetic trip through the corners of the DCU, but once Chase confronted her powers and perhaps her freeloading boyfriend, what’s left? I could see this being a 25-issue series, but that probably wasn’t the plan, and it definitely wasn’t what happened.

Chase’s appearances in the included Secret Files issues certainly don’t indicate there was a need for more stories. These backups are interesting if you simply want more Chase and DEO, but there’s no desperate reason for them to exist other than that, except as page filler. The best of the lot was The Joker: Last Laugh Secret Files, in which Chase and another agent, who survived a botched attack on Gorilla Grodd, interview survivors of the Joker’s attacks. The idea is better than the story, which needed more room to breathe but was still worth reading. The rest tend to blend together, an impression that is strengthened by the reprint editor’s refusal to label these Secret File stories. Evidently, some were tied to a specific storyline; adding footnotes or explanatory text would have helped clarify the incident in Kansas that everyone is alluding to but not explaining. A note that is included from the original printing of (what I’m assuming is) DC Universe Secret Files #1 says Chase’s fight with “Buzzword” (again, I’m assuming, as the name is mentioned only tangentially) is shown from Chase’s perspective in DCU Heroes Secret Files #1. However, that issue isn’t included; why is that? (Was it not published? Not very good? Not included for some other reason?)

I can see why this series is beloved by some. It was certainly ahead of its time, both as a precursor of J.H. Williams’s stardom and as a more grounded, broadly focused look at a superhero universe. I enjoyed and would read more, if it existed. That doesn’t mean the series was great, though it does mean it was better than a lot of other series that lived through horrible patches at about the same time. At $30 for more than 300 pages, Chase is certainly worth a look.

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (3.5 of 5)

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13 February 2012

Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories

Collects: Conan the Barbarian #151-9 (1983-4)

Released: December 2010 (Dark Horse)

Format: 200 pages / color / $18.99 / ISBN: 9781595825841

What is this?: Conan stabs his way through another nine issues of his eponymous series.

The culprits: Writer / artist John Buscema and writer Michael Fleischer, with fill-in art from Gary Kwapisz

There’s no doubt the comic book direct market is in trouble. Sales have been declining for years, and unlike at the direct market’s dawn, few titles are guaranteed a continued existence. This is discouraging for those of us who would enjoy long runs for new characters and titles or hope titles that have always been at the fringe of economic viability (Power Man & Iron Fist, Defenders, Alpha Flight, etc.) will get a new ongoing series. The only good news is that almost every current title should have a purpose or a hook.

You don’t see too many zombie titles any more. If you’ve read comics in the late 20th century, you’ve probably come across a zombie title or three. They’re the ones that lurched along, all semblance of life drained away, still repetitively doing all those things it did when it was new and vital. There’s no creative reason to publish these comics: no overarching plots, no exciting young creators looking to work with the character, no groundbreaking creativity. There’s just a semi-loyal audience hanging around, large enough to make money off of. For a Marvel comic, there’s something humorous about this: Marvel zombies helping zombie comics titles survive. A zombie support network, if you will.

Chronicles of Conan, v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories coverConan the Barbarian was a prime example of a zombie title. After original writer Roy Thomas left, there was a drop-off in the writing quality; few of his successors had a handle on Conan and his world like he did. Truth to tell, even Thomas was having trouble by the end of his long run. The title floundered. So by issue #151 — where Chronicles of Conan v. 20: Night of the Wolf and Other Stories begins — what was the purpose of this title?

The easy answer is that Conan stuck around to give artist John Buscema, often inked by his frequent Conan collaborator Ernie Chan, a place to play. Conan is the title the elder Buscema brother was most associated with, and if he wanted to do the title, why not let him? The art still looks great; there’s no doubt about that. Conan and his enemies are dynamic, active enough to still occasionally surprise the long-term reader with their vividness. Conan himself hasn’t devolved into a copy or parody artistically, although I have my doubts about his blue-sleeveless-tee-tucked-into-furry-bikini ensemble. Still, the monsters are monstrous, and the girls are as gorgeous as ever. And Buscema even started plotting the stories. Giving Buscema a forum for his work and keeping him happy seems a worthy goal, right?

But it’s hard to shake the idea that even the art has lost its freshness. I’ve seen the Conan / pretty girl / evil-wizard / monster set piece before, and if Buscema moves the elements of this stock tale around artfully, he can’t disguise that they are the same elements. I find myself wishing Marvel would have given Buscema a new challenge, something for him to flex his character design and artistic muscles on.

On the other hand, Conan must have sold. So the zombie stays in the publishing schedule.

The writing is a larger problem. Certainly there’s nothing new there. The stories aren’t the worst in the Chronicles of Conan series, but Buscema and Michael Fleischer (writer #151-4, dialogue #155-9) aren’t breaking new ground. There are no overarching plots, no development of Conan’s character (although 21st century readers should know that’s not a priority), and few characters — good or evil — are worth seeing again. Conan’s violent edge has dulled into a paternalistic affability; he’s a nice guy by this collection. A nice guy who guts a few people every issue, but he’s not out to destroy, and he’s not always on the make.

The same elements are used again and again — abducted maiden, lost city under attack (that one’s used twice), evil woman trying to control Conan (again, twice), the perilous inn. Issue #155, in which Conan rescues a grateful toady from a semi-competent wizard, is the best of the lot, and although there are a few attempts at twists (the wolf in #158, the wizard’s identity in #157), the execution produces limp results. (The twist in #158 is spoiled on cover, for instance.) This is partially down to Buscema, who is presumably learning the ropes as a writer; in #156, for instance, the final third of the story is a flashback in which Conan doesn’t appear.

I have to admit I didn’t initially catch that the title of #154 — “The Man-Bats of Ur-Zanarrh!” — was a play on a 1958 Batman story, “Batman — The Superman of Planet-X,” in which Batman encounters the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, an alien planet. (Not many other people would have caught it had Grant Morrison not resurrected the idea for his recent Batman run.) Clever — but not clever enough to save the story or the book. In any event, when a war between winged humans and bat men on a floating city — a war in which Conan rides a giant dragonfly — seems a little ho-hum, it’s probably time to strike the curtain and call it a day.

There are reasons for zombie titles to exist — or there were, at least. They served as a safe place to launch new creators, such as Frank Miller on Daredevil, and new ideas. They provided a feeling of a shared universe, which was more important then than it is today. These zombie titles also give readers a nice feeling of continuity: there’s Conan on the newsstand; it’s been there for a decade, and it will still be there in another decade.

That last is a luxury the direct market will no longer allow, though, and the other two aren’t relevant to Night of the Wolf. The only reason for Conan to continue throughout the ‘80s was economic. But that’s not really a reason for anyone but Conan diehards to read Night of the Wolf in 2012.

Rating: Conan symbol Conan symbol (2 of 5)

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05 February 2012

White Tiger: A Hero's Compulsion

Collects: White Tiger #1-6 (2007)

Released: September 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 152 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785122739

What is this?: A former FBI agent inherits her uncle’s mystical martial arts amulets and feels she must fight crime with the abilities it has given her.

The culprits: Writers Tamora Pierce and Timothy Liebe and artists Phil Briones with Al Rio and Ronaldo Adriano Silva

Remember when you were a kid, and there was always one guy who tried so hard to fit in, laughing too loud at the in-jokes, agreeing to any stupid suggestion, and making up grandiose stories that clearly weren’t true? And that only made you dislike the poor sap?

Angela del Toro, the new White Tiger in White Tiger: A Hero's Compulsion, is kinda like that guy.

White Tiger: A Hero’s Compulsion coverIt’s not del Toro’s fault, not really. The fault lies with wife-and-husband writing team Tamora Pierce and Timothy Liebe. Pierce is an experienced writer of YA fantasy novels; I’ve actually read Melting Stones and enjoyed it. But Pierce and Liebe’s unfamiliarity with comics might be a factor here.

I think the rules for establishing a new character — which del Toro essentially is — is different in novels and other types of serial storytelling. In a novel (or movie) series, some amount of downtime is generally expected between books, and a great deal of unexplored backstory is a given. People and events can be easily inserted, in most cases, where they are needed. Comics can try to do that, but eventually you end up with someone like Wolverine, who knows (or has smelled) everyone. Del Toro’s familiarity with how other characters smell is left unexamined, but it seems like everyone wants her to be successful.

Angela del Toro was introduced as the inheritor of her uncle’s mystical amulets in Daredevil (v. 2) #51, and the title hero was a bit of a jerk to her in her introductory arc. Pierce and Liebe go in the other direction in White Tiger: she gets help from everyone. Serving as her guardian angel is Iron Fist — unconvincingly disguised as Daredevil, a deception former FBI agent del Toro takes too long to unravel. Black Widow helps her shop for a costume and goes drinking with her. Those two, plus Luke Cage and Spider-Man, join her for her first Marvel team-up. The mention of the Black Cat makes some sense (similar street-level power levels), but Deadpool makes a gratuitous appearance, as does Emma Frost. (For some reason, the White Tiger’s costume is mistaken for Frost’s super lingerie ensemble. That seems … wrong, unless all female superheroes / villains in red are mistaken for the Scarlet Witch.) All that was missing was a big banner saying “The Marvel Universe Welcomes the New White Tiger, the Coolest Hero Ever.”

Perhaps the strangest part, however, is del Toro’s main supervillainous antagonist: Cobra. Not the original, squeeze-through-tight-spaces Cobra, but his nephew, who has similar powers but is better at hand-to-hand fighting and was created for the White Tiger miniseries. There’s nothing wrong with creating a new villain — even a new, knockoff villain — for a new hero. But the writers and Marvel were doing everything they could in this book to integrate del Toro into the Marvel Universe. Why create a new villain when an editor (or fan) could probably give you a half dozen pre-existing candidates who would fit thematically and physically against the new White Tiger?

It’s not just that the heroes like and accept del Toro; other than villains in the main plot, her life seems almost perfect. Although del Toro has some martial arts abilities before she gets the amulet, her powers come mainly through magic; she’s not like Spider-Man, who added powers through training and design. She’s not very careful with her secret identity, but she doesn’t get into trouble. Her costume is designed for her and given to her without any effort on her part. To give her a push as a real contender, Spider-Man foe the Lizard shows up — twice, neither time for any plot-related reason — and White Tiger defeats him both times. There is ready-made family drama — del Toro comes from a large family, and her uncle’s widow has to have some strong feelings about seeing a new White Tiger — but the story actively shies away from this until it lightly touches upon it in the epilogue. Del Toro is handed a job in her civilian identity that pays well, plays to her strengths, and gives her free time to fight crime. It’s almost as if Pierce and Liebe are going out of their way to eliminate conflict for del Toro, which is a shame. It’s not that all of these had to be followed up on. Any one would have added a great deal to the story’s tension.

There is a lot of potential for conflict and future storylines here. The real Daredevil, the one del Toro had a mentor / antagonist relationship with, never appears in the story because he’s in prison. The potential for family angst is near limitless, with many of del Toro’s relatives serving as cops. On a similar note, there’s always the traditional moral antagonism of the costumed vigilante vs. law enforcement. Pierce and Leibe chose to pit del Toro vs. the Japanese criminal organization that killed her FBI partner, and that’s a good choice, but there’s room for more conflict. I could understand them not using all sources of conflict if this was the lead-in to an ongoing series or establishing the character as a major player. But del Toro isn’t a major player, and most of her subsequent appearances shoot her status quo in the head.

French artist Phil Briones pencils #1-5, with Alvaro Rio and Ronaldo Adriano Silva drawing #6. Briones doesn’t remind me of a stereotypical European artist; most of his work on White Tiger fits in with the Marvel house style very well. It looks slick, and it has a smooth line, so I’m inclined to approve of it. His action sequences are more fluid and dynamic than most artists, but strangely, it’s his non-action scenes that feel stiff and posed. For a final issue art substitution, the transition to Rio and Silva is surprisingly smooth. The two new artists don’t look like they’re aping Briones in #6, but their styles, although slightly less detailed, mesh with Briones pretty well. The covers, by David Mack, are beautiful, but there are only six of those, so they’re not quite worth buying the collection (or all of the original issues, for that matter).

White Tiger has two facets that might intrigue Marvel fans: Pierce, the big-name writer, and the link to Daredevil. Neither amounts to much. The latter never goes anywhere because the real Daredevil is in prison, and although Pierce (and Liebe) craft an overall competent superhero story, it never reaches the height of a good prose novel. White Tiger’s involvement in the Shadowland storyline makes most of this book moot in terms of long-term consequences; as a stand-alone story, White Tiger looks like a collection of just-missed chances by someone who just wants to be accepted.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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